by Graham Wynd
If you write noir then you know the murky streets where darkness and rain seem nigh on constant. When Monday rolls around it’s just another day and you face it with a hangover more often than not. The slug of whisky in your coffee is just enough to stop the shakes and the dame that rolls into your office looking too slinky for the daylight reminds you how you got into this state in the first place.
But she’s got that one thing you need: a story. That’s the real drug. You can sit at your battered Underwood—issued to all would-be noir writers at the inception of their careers—and open a vein as Red Smith suggests, but blood only gets you so far. You need a narrative to lasso your reader and drag them along behind you.
If you’re writing noir, you need atmosphere too. It helps if you have the kind of heart that’s heard “too many lies” because after all “one more tear won’t make no difference to the rain”. Your heart has to yearn for something it’s not likely to get, yet that goal has to be close enough to your grasp to make reaching for it irresistible. That’s what keeps the shadowy streets, rainy nights, cool dames and dangerous guys from slipping into cliché.
It helps if you have an ear for dialogue. You can go plain and hard, like the Continental Op, but once the bodies pile up you find yourself spitting out phrases like, “This damned burg’s getting to me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.” You have to feel isolated, like you can’t trust anybody really, even if you need to relax once in a while. Every description reminds you that death lurks behind every transaction. The Op hears things like, “Polly De Voto is a good scout and anything she sells you is good, except maybe the bourbon. That always tastes a little bit like it had been drained off a corpse.”
If there isn’t the risk of death, the stakes aren’t high enough. Sit down and list your characters: figure out what they want and how they suffer and see where the lines cross. Make them doubt every step of the way—make them also think they’re the one who’ll get away with it, that they’re ahead of the game.
And make them suffer. Make them all suffer. Take another shot of whisky. You’re bleeding now.
A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour, Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. Wynd’s novella of murder and obsessive love, EXTRICATE is out now from Fox Spirit Books; the print edition also includes the novella THROW THE BONES and a dozen short stories. See more stories (including free reads!) here.